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Can We Make Honolulu Cool?

The city and county of Honolulu wants to change the way the city looks. Is “smart growth” the way to go?


The City and County of Honolulu wants to change the way the city looks. These before-and-after renderings by the city show how two real-life Honolulu streets could be redeveloped. But to get to that future, the city says we must adopt a planning model known as "smart growth." How smart is it?

What is smart growth? To find out, HONOLULU met with five government and private groups planning smart growth in Kapolei and urban Honolulu. We also spoke with some of smart growth's critics here and on the Mainland. OK, urban planning doesn't reach out and thrill, well, almost anyone as a subject. But in the coming years, it could change a lot about how you live, where you work, how you get around town every day. If you want to know how, read on.

Smart growth is an amorphous, politically loaded catchphrase. To understand it, one first has to understand its opposite, another politically loaded catchphrase-"sprawl."

Sprawl could define every square foot of growth that American cities have experienced since the end of World War II. Sprawl is you, where you live right now. It is the spread of single family homes, freeways, highways, strip malls, shopping centers, industrial parks and the like. It is the planning model that says a parcel of land should have only one use-housing separated from commercial, separated from retail, separated from industrial. "We the city] have created sprawl ourselves by zoning five, 50 or 500 acres of land at a time for homes only, instead of for all the services a community needs," explains Eric Crispin, an architect by training and now director of the city's Department of Planning and Permitting.

Those who build sprawl call it "development." If you live in sprawl, you probably call it your "neighborhood." Sprawl's defenders, such as the American Dream Coalition, insist that large suburbs of single-family homes, and the roads and cars that connect them to other services, have allowed unprecedented numbers of Americans to afford their own homes, leading happier, more productive, more private lives than at any other time in American history. You, too, may think you're very happy with your home in the suburbs, your garage, your yard where your kids can play.

But sprawl's critics-from the Sierra Club to former vice president Al Gore-survey the spread of homes, garages, McDonalds and Wal-Marts and see a wasteful use of land that threatens the environmental and cultural health of the nation.

Above all, sprawl's critics don't like your car. Sprawl has made us "overdependent" on automobiles, the city has argued. There are too many freeways and too few bicycle paths and walkways. The anti-sprawl mentality is neatly captured in a 1998 speech Gore gave to the Brookings Institute: "We drive the same majestic scenery, but in too many places, the land is burdened by an ugliness that leaves us with a quiet sense of sadness. Acre upon acre of asphalt have transformed what were once mountain clearings and congenial villages into little more than massive parking lots."

If sprawl is a poison-and you may want to think for a moment if you really consider your home, your street, your neighborhood Safeway to be "an ugliness that burdens the land"-than smart growth is sold as the antidote. "It's an attempt to go back to the way we designed cities before World War II," explains architect Tim Van Meter, who is advising the city on planning.

In local terms, this means neighborhoods such as Chinatown or Wai'alae Avenue, as opposed to Mililani or Waikele. Instead of low-density housing (detached single-family homes with yards), smart growth urges higher densities. Instead of designating a parcel of land for a single use, it advocates mixed-use zoning. Take a look at the before-and-after images of Liliha Street on pages 72 and 73, for example-older apartments would be replaced with buildings offering retail on the ground floor, residential and even office space on higher floors.

Liliha and Kuakini Streets
This is Liliha Street in Kalihi as it looks now. What do we see? Overhead electrical wires, low-rise housing with no street presence, single-use zoning, meaning a parcel can either be business or residential, but not both, separates the residences from the businesses, across a busy street. Parking lots dominate the street scene.

Or look at what the city thinks Kaka'ako could become, on page 75, blocks of six-story, mixed-use buildings. "This is the density of all the great cities of the world, Paris, Amsterdam," says architect and urban planner Rick Williams, also of Van Meter Williams Pollack.

Crispin created these images because he thinks urban Honolulu and Kapolei aren't quite working as real communities. "These are the two places on O'ahu we've designated for future growth," he says. But Kapolei is developing scattershot, taking shape as a series of housing developments instead of a full-service city. And Honolulu is underutilized, ripe for redevelopment. Smart growth, he thinks, could fix both towns.

"Smart" vs. "Sprawl"

Which local problems can smart growth solve? Just about anything, if we listen to the agencies and planners HONOLULU spoke with. On Kapolei issues, these include the city, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; the University of Hawai'i Sea Grant program and two private consulting firms: traffic planner James F. Charlier, AICP, of Charlier Associates Inc., out of Boulder, Colo., and urban planners from the architectural firm of Van Meter Williams Pollack, of San Francisco, Calif., and Denver, Colo.

For example, smart growth could mitigate childhood obesity.

"[Sprawl] is a social health problem," says Crispin. "We've had people from the state Department of Health come to our cabinet meetings saying we have an epidemic of type II diabetes in kids as a result."

Maybe. But kids have been growing up in car-centric suburbs for half a century and have managed to stay trim until just recently. Childhood obesity has also been attributed to hours spent on the Internet, PlayStation, GameBoys, fearful parents who don't let their children play in the streets like they used to, junk food at home, soda machines at school, dwindling physical education classes and more. Who knows what else?

How about crime? In the past, the city has argued that suburban Honolulu, being so spread out, is inherently more costly to police. However, that doesn't appear to be true. Honolulu Police Department's annual budget averages out to $77,702 per year, per police officer. The New York Police Department spends $91,782 per officer.

Crispin insists that sprawl's single-use zoning encourages crime. "You have business districts that are empty at night, residential areas that are empty during the day," he says. "There are no 'eyes on the street,' and we know that 'eyes on the street' prevent crime. In a mixed-use area, when the shopkeepers leave at the end of their day, the apartment dwellers come home to the same buildings and can see what's going on in their neighborhoods."

Maybe. But why is it that our densest, oldest cities, where mixed-use is the norm, are the same places where residents fear crime the most? Why is it that, as soon as city dwellers have children, they move out to the perceived safety of the suburbs? Why don't those eyes on the street work?

Van Meter explains that urban-renewal projects created crime by loading only poor people into high-density developments. Others around the table insist density is irrelevant to crime. "You haven't seen a ghetto until you've seen a suburban ghetto," says one.

Crime, they went on to insist, is related more to socioeconomics. Poor areas suffer high crime, no matter how many eyes nervously watch the street.

Smart growth is supposed to fix this by mixing people of different incomes into the same developments. But, in practice, this hasn't happened. So far, New Urbanism-the component of smart growth that calls for denser, mixed-use neighborhoods-has resulted mainly in upper-middle-class ghettoes, no different from the socioeconomic segregation you see in today's gated executive developments in 'Ewa Beach.

Liliha and Kuakini Streets
This is what the city says Liliha Street could look like if its future redevelopment were guided by smart-growth principles. The most obvious change as that the new buildings shown stand right up against the sidewalks, restoring a coherent streetscape. Where does all the parking go? Concentrated off the streetfront, in, say, a garage with enough parking for the block, or in lots behind the businesses, as one finds in Kaimukï.
The new buildings themselves would be zoned for mixed uses. For example, affordable housing upstairs over storefront businesses such as retail, a dry cleaner, a video rental shop. Or apartments over office space over a ground floor of retail in. A prominent corner property could house shopping and entertainment options, where neighborhood residents would simply hang out.
The city believes a better, denser smart growth mix of residential and commercial functions lining the street will lead to, more pedestrians. Of course, many of the features that pretty up this after image—trees, fancy street lights and deeper, sheltering eaves with better signage along the shops at right— require no smart-growth initiatives at all.

Some critics insist that high-density, pedestrian-oriented New Urbanism actually increases crime. The police in Bedfordshire, England, for example, in a report titled, "Designing Out Crime: The Cost of Policing New Urbanism," noted, "New Urbanism's position on community safety is entirely subjective and based on fundamentally false premises."

As for "eyes on the street," the report adds, "Attempts at providing natural surveillance by locating flats on top of garages do not, in the main, significantly reduce the prevalence of auto-crime and perceived disorder."

What about the environment? "This is where the EPA has its interest, the air and water quality impacts," explains Geoffrey Anderson, of the Environmental Protection Agency. To Anderson, the problem with sprawl is that "it takes huge tracts of land that were providing their ecological function of filtering and storing water and converts it into an impervious surface that creates polluted runoff. These development patterns also cause people to drive long distances. Even as we crank down on tailpipe [emission] standards and make each mile cleaner, if you drive double the miles, we're fighting a losing battle."

Nationwide, the EPA promotes smart growth, because it preserves open space and provides transportation alternatives.

Locally, the city often talks about "keeping the country country." As Crispin says, "We can't keep paving paradise and putting up parking lots."

Some of this is pure rhetoric. There already is a growth boundary around the 'Ewa plain that confines development to former sugar lands, specifically to keep development from "paving paradise." These lands haven't served a natural ecological function since before the rise of sugar plantations in the 1800s. They've been ploughed, irrigated, fertilized, pest-controlled, burnt to the ground routinely, all in pursuit of a monocrop-in short, land so removed from paradise as to be deemed fit only for human habitation.

A Car of One's Own?

Traffic congestion is, to some people, sprawl's greatest sin. It is certainly the average commuters' daily misery. At HONOLULU's meeting with the city and its partners, everyone agreed that traffic has gone from bad to worse, with worse still to come.

What can smart growth do about all this traffic? Within Kapolei and the 'Ewa plain, it might help, up to a point. Charlier points out that the "pod" developments of present-day Kapolei are not even car-friendly.

Hundreds of homes in self-contained clusters curlicue around cul-de-sacs and dead ends, all of these local streets converging on Fort Weaver Road at exactly one intersection. "Developments in 'Ewa aren't connected to each other, even when they're built by the same developer," he says.

The developments aren't connected to nearby commercial centers, either. This turns every little trip for a quart of milk, or to take your child to visit a school friend two developments over, into a car trip on the same road everyone else is using. Consequently, arterials like Fort Weaver Road are choked with local traffic when they were supposed to serve people traveling in and out of the region. "There aren't nearly enough collector and connector roads out there," says Charlier. "There aren't enough alternative routes."

That quart of milk comes up often when the city gives smart-growth presentations. In these talks, the quart of milk is invariably retrieved by a solo driver in an SUV. Fair enough. But the city's own smart-growth consultants are saying that these milk runs jam up the roads, because there are too few roads, too poorly planned.

In fact, it can be argued that Hawai'i has yet to even try road building to mitigate traffic. According to U.S. census data, Hawai'i has the nation's lowest supply of urban highways for urban dwellers. (Honolulu has 1,895 miles of urban highways for 876,000 residents, or 11 highway feet per resident. The national average is 20 highway feet per urban resident.)

Cooke Street and Mother Waldron Park
These Kaka‘ako warehouses are what Eric Crispin, AIA, the city’s director of planning and permitting, calls a “remnant land use.” Their existence dates back to a time when a separate warehouse district was needed to supply the nearby Honolulu business district. Mother Waldron Park provides some pleasant, if pointless, green relief—it’s a neighborhood park without a neighborhood. (The park’s name is rooted in Kaka‘ako history, named after Margaret Waldron, a Pohukaina School teacher who founded and ran the school’s Kaka‘ako playground for 24 years. Waldron died in 1939.)

In any case, it's not the milk runs that have 'Ewa drivers steamed. It's the one- to one-and-a-half-hour morning commutes to town.

This, too, is said to be the result of car-centered sprawl. Will smart growth fix it? Is there any place in America where smart growth has alleviated traffic congestion?

"Is there any place where anything has alleviated traffic congestion?" counters Charlier. "I've studied that, and the answer is no."

"What you can do is mitigate the impact of future growth," added Van Meter.

The best smart growth can do, with an arsenal of transportation options-cars, mass transit, buses, bike paths, walkways and more-is keep congestion from getting worse. Right now, those other options aren't even happening on the 'Ewa plain. Says Charlier, "If Kapolei is going to develop into the second city you've said you want it to be, it's going to need some kind of transit."

Smart growth is often interchangeable with another term-transit-oriented development. We could look to Portland, Ore., for a hint of what could be coming to O'ahu. Portland established rigid growth boundaries in 1979 and committed to transit-oriented development. It went for smart growth before the term even existed.

Portland suffered through a recession in the '80s, during which the population problem was out-migration, not overdevelopment. But Portland boomed in the 1990s, so much so that now, some people are chafing against those limits.

Explains John A. Charles, an analyst for the Cascade Policy Institute, a nonprofit free-market think tank in Portland, "In Portland, smart growth means a fanatical commitment to street cars and every kind of rail." In Charles' view, Portland's approach to smart growth has made traffic congestion worse than it would otherwise be, by sacrificing existing roads and road building in order to fund transit. "We just opened another five-and-a-half miles of rail here, which they built by cannibalizing a major arterial road. Four lanes have been taken down to two."

Transit-oriented development is costing Portland in other ways, he says, through subsidies and quality-of-life issues. Transit-oriented developments in Portland are high-density suburbs, with minimal parking-for example, .65 dedicated parking spaces per housing unit-mandated by planners on the assumption that residents don't need cars. "But this housing is denser than the market would naturally bear, so developers have to be subsidized just so they'll build it," says Charles. Then, despite the planners' parking restrictions, residents move in with two cars anyway. "This parking spills out into the surrounding low-density, single-family neighborhoods and begins to ruin them."

Charles insists that in Portland, "Smart growth is now angering so many people, even those who once supported it, that it's sowing the seeds of its own destruction." He is one of those who have turned around on the subject. For 17 years, he was the executive director of the Oregon Environmental Council, lobbying to pass green-friendly legislation. "I voted to tax myself for light rail as recently as 1994," he says. "Then I moved to the far east side of Portland, specifically to be a light-rail commuter. That's when I became a critic."

Another rail critic to visit Portland recently is Cliff Slater, of Honolulu, who often writes about planning and transit in his The Honolulu Advertiser column and who was instrumental in defeating a Fasi-era rail project. "I visited one of Portland's new rail stations near the Intel plant," he reports. "The development around it looks like the 1880s New York Bowery, the people are just jammed in there."

Slater insists that smart growth is based on misplaced nostalgia. "People don't live like they did before World War II, so why would we build our cities like that? Are you going to stop at Home Depot, buy lumber, then hop on a street car?"

Planners also fetishize historic European downtowns. "Madrid is the ideal urbanist city," says Slater. "Everything is five stories tall, with apartments over shops and restaurants. You hardly see a single-family home. There's a wonderful train, buses, taxis galore. Everything you could want. The traffic congestion is awful."

Finally, Charles and Slater both point out another unforeseen consequence of smart growth as it has played out in Portland-housing is more expensive. "Smart growth isn't solely responsible for that," says Charles. "But it is a factor."

On O'ahu, where the median price of a single-family home is steadily approaching $500,000, we might be more allergic than Portland to higher housing prices.

So is it smart, or not?

By now you might be thinking smart growth is a horrible mistake.

Maybe. But what about those pictures? Look at that projection of what Kaka'ako could look like. Look at what Liliha Street could look like. Either photo illustration also demonstrates what Kapolei could develop into.

Don't those places, those imagined, future Honolulus, look cool?

OK. These images are obviously advertisements, each building immaculate, every pedestrian grinning. "Smart growth" itself is a sales slogan, smugly insisting that what has gone before is dumb, dumb, dumb. A skeptic must resist the urge to put smart growth in quotes every time it pops up.

Cooke Street and Mother Waldron Park
Using the higher-density, mixed-use approach of smart growth, the city thinks this bleak warehouse district could look like this instead. Shown here are mid-rise developments that fill their blocks, with parking in the center of the blocks and the human elements brought out to the sidewalks. The building at left (1), could combine apartments and offices over a ground-floor shopping arcade, shaded by trees. At the right, another building holds apartments and offices over ground-floor restaurants (2). The resulting neighborhood has about the same building heights and density of such cities as Paris or Amsterdam.
Key to the smart-growth approach is bringing major amenities within walking distance of residents—note the full-size Foodland supermarket at the bottom of the center residential/office building (3).
Since it now serves a neighborhood, Mother Waldron Park is shown here enhanced with points of interest (4) and places to sit and linger (5).

Slater is right that planners fetishize old European cities. The planners HONOLULU spoke with actually brought up Paris and Amsterdam as ideals to strive for. But it may not be such an uncommon experience for locals who travel to older cities such as New York, Chicago or San Francisco, if not Paris or Madrid, to look around at the shops, restaurants, museums, salons, art galleries, nightclubs, apartments, coffee houses, boutique fashion stores, dry cleaners, Virgin Megastores and used-book shops, side by side, in a swirl of delightful urban diversions and say, "How come Honolulu isn't like this?"

Smart growth, say its advocates, could make Honolulu, or Kapolei, like that.

Under current regulations, the city hasn't even allowed this kind of experiment. Crispin insists that when the city talks up smart growth, it isn't proposing a new set of restrictions, such as banning single-family homes in favor of row houses, or injecting commercial developments into Old Kähala. "All we want to do is add the possibilities of smart growth to our existing codes so people can try it as we build out Kapolei and redevelop the primary urban core of Honolulu."

Crispin, Van Meter and his crew, Charlier, all have an infectious enthusiasm and evangelists' zeal for smart growth. Like any evangelists, however, they make assertions we must take on faith. Smart growth as the cure for any disease we might have caught from that old devil sprawl. It obviously isn't, however. It will not magically make fat children thin, or disperse traffic jams. If anything, smart-growth advocates are pushing dubious claims at the expense of what may be, for some people, smart growth's chief attraction:

If it's done right. If we learn from the mistakes made on the Mainland. If it remains voluntary so we can be sure it's what we really want. Then, maybe Honolulu can finally become cool.

Cool like Paris. Cool like Greenwich Village. Imagine cool downtown Honolulu as a dense, textured, culturally rich, walkable, live-work urban experience.

"Oh, no one who's anyone goes to Maui anymore. You've got to stay in the Four Seasons Bishop Street."

"Atlanta is dead, man. I'm opening my next gallery in Honolulu."

We could potentially be sold on that future as its own reward.

But don't let the planners tell you that such growth has no downside. Dense, textured, culturally rich, walkable, live-work urban experiences are also crowded, expensive, noisy, choked with traffic and full of strangers who will sometimes make you afraid. We can't have the good without the bad.

Any smart person could tell you that. The real question for Honolulu is, Do we want this? That is something smart people will have to figure out for themselves.

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Honolulu Magazine July 2020
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